If you ever go across the sea… to Mayaland (part 2)
Driving to Palenque, the road passes through verdant countryside and multiple villages. Demonstrations against the government are commonplace here and the road can be blocked for several hours at a time. We therefore set off at dawn and in the early morning sunlight gazed at the magical sight of the green countryside dotted with pockets of mist.
Along the way we stopped at two waterfalls: the spectacular Agua Azul, a series of cataracts on the Xanil river that break up the flow of the turquoise waters and the Misol-Ha waterfall, which is a higher, single stream. It is possible to walk behind the latter, but we gave up when the conditions underfoot became increasingly uneven and wet, suggesting that we might soon leave the path and disappear into the waters below!
Our hotel near Palenque, Quinta Cha Nab Nal, was owned and run by an Italian who’d been intrigued by the Maya since he was 12. He has devoted much of his life to studying them and even designed and built the hotel with them in mind. We found him a fascinating man, keen to share his knowledge and enthusiasm with his guests.
Quinta Cha Nab Nal
Palenque itself was majestic and atmospheric, surrounded by jungle. Our first sight was of the temples of Dying Moon (or Skulls), Red Queen and the Inscriptions, the latter containing the tomb of Pakal the Great, who ruled for 68 years in the 7th century. The site was occupied by the Maya from about 100BC until the 10th century AD, when it was abandoned to the encroaching jungle. We also visited the palace and the well-preserved Temples of the Cross, which include the Temple of the Foliated Cross and the Temple of the Sun. A number of temples have their names based on carvings on the structure, the Foliated Cross being a case in point.
In Merida, further temples awaited. The largest of these was at Uxmal, where most of the structures date from the 7th-10th centuries. Many of them retain the names given to them by the Spanish conquerors. The first building to greet us was the Magician’s Pyramid, 35m tall and an oval shape. Legend has it that it was built in one night by a dwarf with supernatural powers, hence the name. More realistically it shows signs of having been constructed in five phases over five centuries. The Nunnery Quadrangle was so-called as the Spanish thought the small rooms resembled the cells of a nunnery. They are richly decorated with carvings of serpents and of the rain god Chaac. We climbed up a modernised section of the Great Pyramid en route to the Governor’s Palace and the nearby Jaguar Throne. After this, we went to the much smaller and practically deserted – and crumbling – site of Kabah, to see the Palace of Masks. It is a sad fact that in Mexico, any project which cannot show a short-term financial return is left unpursued.
Uxmal, carvings on the Nunnery
Finally we moved on to the country’s most famous and best restored site, Chichen Itza. It is probably the most visited as it’s near Cancun and Playa de Carmen and is by far the most commercial in terms of stalls lining the paths. There is no single agreed historical narrative; although it is accepted that there are both Mayan and Toltec influences. It was certainly a major commercial, religious and military centre. We started our tour at the Group of a Thousand Columns – possibly a former market-place – and the Temple of the Warriors. We then saw the great pyramid, El Castillo, which has the classic features of Mayan design. The orientation, levels, steps and panels are all directly linked to the Mayan calendar. We then visited Tzompantli – a platform whose function was to display the skulls of defeated enemies – followed by the Temple of Venus, Temple of the Jaguars and Platform of the Eagles. The Sacred Cenote is a natural sinkhole regarded as the home of the rain god Chaac as well as once being used for human sacrifice. Having returned to the main site, we walked through the largest ball court in Mesoamerica, which was an amazing 96.5 metres long.
On our final day of sight-seeing we covered Coba and Tulum. Coba flourished between 300 and 1,000AD and is only partially excavated, with much of it still covered by the surrounding jungle. We started at a small pyramid known as the church – local people regard it as a shrine – and the adjacent ball court. We then walked through the jungle for well over a mile to the main pyramid, Nohoch Mul. It is the tallest Mayan pyramid in the Yucatan and offers a spectacular view from the top. Unfortunately, the incessant trampling of tourists’ feet up and down is rapidly destroying the staircase. Thankfully the authorities have installed a rope to help you climb up the deteriorating steps.
Amidst a grassy landscape, Tulum is set on a clifftop and dates back to 1,200AD. Its most prominent building is El Castillo, a post-classic temple. The other structures of note were the Temple of the Wind, its circular base indicating a link with the god of the wind, the Temple of the Descending God – the identity of the falling figure in the carving is thought to be a deity associated with the setting sun – and the Temple of the Frescoes, whose walls are adorned with fading paintings of various deities and symbols. As we departed, we came across a 30-metre blue pole and five costumed men performing El ritual de los Voladores de Papantla – the ritual of the flyers in Papantla. The men all climb the pole and while one remains on top banging a drum and playing a flute, the other four tie themselves with ropes before launching themselves outwards and slowly descending in wider circles as they rotate. It is spectacular, and for us, a piece of Mexico’s cultural past to sign off our tour of the country.
So ended what is likely to be our final expedition to Central America, heavily tilted towards visiting ancient sites and covering many different periods of Mexico’s ancient civilisations. I still remain confused by the various different civilisations and who existed where and when, but we found the whole historical experience fascinating. The various city tours and trips through the countryside also showed us that this part of Mexico is not the mythical rock-strewn, cactus-sprouting desert portrayed by the film industry. Instead we discovered a country with wide-ranging landscapes and a significant cultural heritage that provided us with insights into its history from their perspective rather than that of European invaders.
A rewarding trip.
You can read part one of Mike and Chris Simm’s blog here.
Cox & Kings can organise a tailor-made itinerary visiting these Mayan sites, find out more here.